Suicide of Seoul mayor sparks soul searching in S. Korea

A Buddhist monk paying his respects at a public memorial for the mayor, who died in an apparent suicide, in Seoul on July 13. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE People staging a demonstration in Seoul on Tuesday to urge the National Human Rights Commission
People staging a demonstration in Seoul on Tuesday to urge the National Human Rights Commission to look into allegations that the city's late mayor Park Won-soon molested his former secretary. The commission said on Thursday that it will launch a probe into the case and a review of government measures against sexual harassment involving high-ranking officials. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A Buddhist monk paying his respects at a public memorial for the mayor, who died in an apparent suicide, in Seoul on July 13. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE People staging a demonstration in Seoul on Tuesday to urge the National Human Rights Commission
A Buddhist monk paying his respects at a public memorial for the mayor, who died in an apparent suicide, in Seoul on July 13. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

He was the fourth in string of politicians from ruling Democratic Party hit by sex scandals

Four years after being sexually harassed by her boss - the mayor of Seoul city - and ignored when she sought help within the office, a woman mustered all her courage to report him to the police.

"I wanted to receive a humane apology and (for him to) be judged by the law," she said in a statement.

But it was not to be.

Mr Park Won-soon was found dead in an apparent suicide in the woods of Mount Bugak on July 10, two days after his former secretary lodged a complaint against him.

This made him the fourth in a string of politicians from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to be hit by sex scandals - one is currently in jail for repeatedly raping his secretary - and his case was all the more shocking as he had earned a reputation for fighting for women's rights from as early as the 1980s, when he was a lawyer.

His death has also prompted soul searching about deep-rooted malpractices in South Korea's male-dominated work environment, as more women are now emboldened to speak up against the backdrop of a global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.

Legally, the case has been closed as South Korean law does not allow indictment against a dead suspect. But the victim, whose identity is withheld, refuses to be silenced.

She has held two press conferences, speaking through her lawyer, and she helped the police to unlock Mr Park's phone on July 22.

She is backed by women's rights groups, who called her situation "a case of organised crime sustained by power".

On Thursday, the National Human Rights Commission announced that its representatives have been in talks with the victim and will launch a probe into the case and a review of government measures against sexual harassment involving high-ranking officials.

Law professor Lee Jae-min of Seoul National University said there is still a need to find out the truth, despite the mayor's death.

 
 

"Given the gravity of the situation and the people involved, including Mayor Park, the necessary investigations by the relevant government agencies will continue to be carried out, even though it takes time. We need to clarify what happened," he told The Sunday Times.

South Korea's patriarchal society and hierarchical work culture makes it hard for a female subordinate to say no to a male superior's demands, even if it is sexual in nature, for fear of losing her job.

In Mr Park's case, the victim said she approached some 20 people in the office for help, but did not get any support. Some waved it off and expressed disbelief, while others blamed her for being "pretty".

"Let his death lead to a deeper reflection and frank discussion on the toxic grip of sexual harassment in the workplace, and in our culture at large," human sciences professor Cho Kyung-jin of Cyber University of Korea said in a commentary for The Korea Times newspaper.

"This is not about labelling Mayor Park as a pervert, nor is it about denying his legacy. It is about recognising a system that enables powerful men to take advantage of their position to do what they please with female staff in the lower echelons of the rank and file."

Meanwhile, political watchers warn that the sexual abuse surfacing in the DP does not bode well for the ruling party and President Moon Jae-in. Both rose to power promising gender equality and better treatment of women.

"The fact that officials from Moon's party are involved in sexual abuse against women makes a mockery of the President's efforts," said Ms Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow on East Asia at Quincy Institute.

 
 

The allegations against Mr Park could "spell trouble" for the Moon administration in the remaining two years of his five-year term, Ms Lee added. This is especially so if the ruling party loses the mayoral seats in Seoul and Busan - the country's two largest and most important cities - at April's by-election.

Former Busan mayor Oh Keo-don resigned in April after sexual harassment charges against him surfaced.

Lawmaker Nam In-soon, the head of DP's sexual abuse eradication task force and a close ally of the late Seoul mayor, offered a tearful apology last Monday.

"The world has changed, and so has the public's viewpoint," she was cited as saying. "Female voters will no longer want to support the Democratic Party after seeing a string of sexual abuse cases involving DP local government heads."


Plagued by scandals

PARK WON-SOON, 64

Former Seoul mayor

Once a presidential hopeful and highly respected for his work in fighting for women's rights as a lawyer, Mr Park was accused by his former secretary on July 8 of inappropriate touching, including kissing her knee that she had bruised, and of asking her to hold him while he was resting in bed in his private office. He also allegedly sent her suggestive text messages and semi-naked photos of himself.

AHN HEE-JUNG, 55

Former South Chungcheong governor

Ahn was tipped to be a potential successor to President Moon Jae-in. A self-professed "feminist", Ahn quit after a former secretary accused him on TV in March 2018 of raping her four times and sexually harassing her on several other occasions. He was sentenced to 31/2 years in jail for sexual assault in February last year.

OH KEO-DON, 71

Former Busan mayor

Oh resigned in April after it emerged that he had sexually assaulted a female employee. He was also expelled from the ruling Democratic Party. The police sought to arrest him on charges of an indecent act by compulsion but a Busan court denied the request in June, saying there was already enough evidence against him and detention was not necessary. Investigations are ongoing.

LEE JAE-MYUNG, 55

Gyeonggi governor

Rumours first circulated in 2010 that Mr Lee, who has been married since 1991, had an affair with actress Kim Boo-sun in 2007. Kim confirmed the rumours in 2018 ahead of provincial elections, which saw Mr Lee running for Gyeonggi governorship. Critics attacked him and asked him to bow out of the race, but he was elected anyway. He is now seen as a potential candidate for the next presidential election.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2020, with the headline 'Suicide of Seoul mayor sparks soul searching in S. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe